The Persistence of Memory in Quarantine (Preliminary Thoughts)

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, by Salvador Dalí.

Part of my focus this summer is autobiography (as praxis), memory and trauma studies. I feel like it’s hugely relevant to everything going on in the world (and not just my world) right now. As part of this, I’ve just been reading some deep analysis and reflection from Shelly Rambo on Christ’s farewell discourse in John. Rambo reads the text through the lens of trauma, and sees the non-linear presentation of time in the text as suggesting an alternative to the redemption story we’re used to with the more familiar interpretations of the passion-death-resurrection narrative.

In Spirit and Trauma, which I have mentioned in past posts, Rambo makes the case again and again that time, especially when viewed through the lens of trauma, is nonlinear. The insistence of a linear narrative, especially when close reading suggests other possibilities, is not exactly accidental, and has all sorts of implications for how we experience our lives and conduct our relationships. (That’s a whole ‘nother post for another time, though.)

Personally, I’ve been immersed in memory over the past weeks and months of quarantine. At times it’s been really harrowing. Yesterday, I found myself reflecting on events around the time of my dad’s death back in 2004. I was thinking not only about how vivid my recollections of this long ago time remain, but also how vividly he recalled, in his final days, episodes much further back in time, and often experienced them as if they were unfolding in the present. It struck me that we are so set in this notion of linear time that we ignore how our minds really experience time, which is not linear at all.

We know that there are several different types of memory, and subjective measures of time. It’s not so surprising that toward the end of his life, my dad’s sense of time became what we might call “jumbled.” This is common for people with terminal cancer in the final stages of life in palliative care settings.

I felt like, really, it was just that the filter was off: dad was experiencing time out loud as we do “in our heads.” Yes, cognitive decline was at play, but it made me think about how we perceive (and use) memory and time when freed from the external cues that keep us “on the rails” in everyday life. For people in palliative care this often means living in the present with memories of the deep past, while not remembering things that happened five minutes before. Sometimes, as with my father, the past was perceived as quite literally present: he would carry on animated conversations with long-dead visitors from his distant past while we were in the room, and even happily translate for us if we asked. (These were not scary, haunting type experiences, and we did not discourage him. I felt, in fact, that his quality of life — not to mention ours –was improved by our experiencing these “visitations” together, as they often evoked deeper memories and led to pleasant reveries. And, frankly, he just seemed happiest when we were all together in the room with his memories.)

As for me, not that it compares to palliative care, but quarantine, particularly the lack of structure to my days over the past weeks and months, has brought memories rushing back from all over my mental and emotional inner map. They aren’t strung together by a linear thread, but “topically,” or by “genre” — which could be a feeling or a mood, a color or a smell, or any number of other very deep subjective cues. I have experienced memory more recently as a web. Memories of dad pop up frequently, as one might expect. I wouldn’t say dad’s death was a trauma experience for me (though violence in an atmosphere of toxic masculinity were major aspects of my experience in childhood), but it was a time of acute, intense awareness and awakeness. And it was such a contrast in scenery and intensity and focus from where I was in my life just prior to the experience. Like most intense, but not necessarily traumatic, experiences, it is always not just present, but “in the present.”

I am often surprised (startled might be a better word, at times) by what I find behind those long-closed doors as I wander the corridors of my “Memory Palace.” As I venture deeper into trauma studies in this suspended moment of societal trauma, I wonder what we can learn about healing in the breakdown of linear time.

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